Saturday, November 12, 2016

A Post-Election Email Exchange on Academia and Politics

Since Tuesday, I've been thinking about what we could be doing better--in terms of encouraging civil participation, in terms of satisfying the needs of the people who did participate in the last election. I don't yet have fully-formed thoughts, but in the meantime here's a recent email exchange.

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from:Jean Yang
to:Robert M Ochshorn,
Chinmay Kulkarni
date:Fri, Nov 11, 2016 at 8:27 AM
subject:Academia and politics

In an email thread the other day, a colleague wondered whether we should be more like the "universities of the 60s" and take a more active role in politics. I had thought then that this wasn't the case, that the issue was these rural voters we couldn't reach, but then I learned that only 1/3 of millenials voted. I came upon this thread on Twitter today:
https://twitter.com/FuckTheory
It's not *quite* my experience, but I think it's useful to talk more about the politics associated with science, and not just the politics of how we talk about science.

An underlying theme of my seminar has been "politics is everything," but previously the scope had been limited to discussing why papers were written the way they were, why certain papers were considered important, the actual impact of papers with respect to some notion of "real world." Yesterday we spent the first thirty minutes talking about the election, and I made a point to talk about the mechanics of the electoral system the way we've been talking about the mechanics of the publication system--something I've gotten pretty worked up about is voter protections. Later we talked about the relationship between science and funding, and how projects could be for both good (e.g. curing disease) and sinister (e.g. surveillance) purposes. The students seemed to appreciate this discussion, and my one student had that nice quote: "We may be solving biological cancer and creating a social cancer."
I previously didn't know how far to push things when it came to talking about the social aspects of science, especially since this is a class in the Computer Science Department, but the students have seemed to appreciate it when I've talked about systems, hierarchies, and the underlying reasons things happen the way they do. I've been thinking about how to connect my relatively narrow academic activism to more generalizable messages and lessons for students who are going to graduate and be the technical/scientific elite.

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Jean Yang
website | twitter

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from:Chinmay Kulkarni
to:Jean Yang,
cc:Robert M Ochshorn
date:Fri, Nov 11, 2016 at 10:13 AM
subject:Re: Academia and politics

Activist campuses are great, if they know what they are activating. The 60s coalesced around peace and civil rights, but what do we want now?

I've been reading a lot into social disenfranchisement, and I worry that things are only going to get worse. Automation is an exponential process, so we're kinda screwed if we don't figure out what people who don't have jobs should do. 

To me, this translates to two actionable things:
1. We've got to start teaching students to take initiative. You can't be the elite if you are a cog. We've got to start thinking about how to make students more entrepreneurial so they don't have to face a time when they have no "job"
2. we are currently letting mathematicians and engineers run the world without a clue about how to reason about ethics or about the social fabric that ties us together. That has to stop. We've got to go beyond "You just tell me the utility and I'll maximise it" to one that is a lot more examined. Otherwise the masses who get left behind are going to be (rightly) electing Trumpian candidates.  
3. Finally I agree with your actions. Academics got divorced from morality as a result of governmental crackdowns on activist campuses: http://www.irwinator.com/124/123.htm And look where it's got us. We cannot train an intellectual elite without moral values.

Chinmay

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